COLUMBUS, Ohio – Columbus Crew SC are in the midst of one of their hottest streaks of the season, and much of the team’s late-season success can be attributed to the emergence of center back Jonathan Mensah.
Mensah was hailed as a “dominant” defender by head coach Gregg Berhalter when he was signed in January as the fifth Designated Player in club history.
But the 27-year-old Ghanaian international found adapting to MLS difficult. He combined crucial errors with a tendency to be overly aggressive, and found himself in headlines for all the wrong reasons throughout the first half of the season.
Over the team’s last four games, however, Mensah seems to finding his footing. Columbus is 3-0-1 in that stretch and have allowed just three total goals. Mensah even added the game-winning goal in Saturday’s 2-1 home win against FC Dallas.
After that match, Berhalter had nothing but praise for his resurgent center back.
“For all the negative things that have been written about his performances, it would be nice to see some positive things written, because the last couple games he’s been absolutely outstanding,” Berhalter said. “To get a goal was important, but to me it’s more about the [overall] performance. He’s been really solid this whole week.”
Berhalter said Mensah, like many new MLS signings, simply needed time to adjust to his new surroundings.
“It does take people some time to adapt to this league, center backs especially,” Berhalter said. “So from that standpoint, he was adapting. It took him some time to figure out what the referees were going to call, what the intensity of the game was like, and as he did, he hung in there.”
The soft-spoken Mensah is rarely interested in speaking about himself, and focuses his thoughts on team performance. But he admitted the adjustment to MLS officiating and opposition has been important, and credited his teammates for their help.
“I’m getting to know every bit of the league – referees, teams – and it helps,” he said. “Credit goes to the guys. They got me through it all. And it’s been great so far.”
Mensah and veteran Josh Williams have discovered an effective partnership, first as two of a back-three and now as the pairing in a more traditional Berhalter 4-2-3-1. Striker Ola Kamara said the rest of the team has taken notice, and said the pair are intimidating to opposition.
“Jonathan and Josh have a good chemistry,” Kamara said. “They’re fighting, and strikers are a little bit scared of them sometimes. … Every time [Mensah] is coming, strikers are backing out and you can see the fear in their eyes.”
The team’s camaraderie was obvious after the goal, when Mensah’s teammates flocked to the embattled center back. But Mensah said that was no surprise, and is a testament to Crew SC’s cohesion.
“It’s always been like this, whether we win or lose or draw,” he said. “We’re always together. So getting a goal, a winner, like this one is a very important one. … It’s a good one for the team.”
And for Berhalter, an in-form Mensah could be a crucial piece for Columbus in the Eastern Conference’s tight playoff race.
“He was able to deal with the negative criticism that was coming, and I think that made him stronger,” Berhalter said. “You see now, his confidence is beaming and he’s playing at a high level.”